Saturday, February 25, 2012

Learning about Learning: Introspection versus Research Part 2

I've now finished Ellen J. Langer's The Power of Mindful Learning (it is a short book).  I will comment here about those parts I had yet to read when writing my previous post, but a few points first.  One is that I view myself as a mindful learner.  I should have said that earlier, but didn't.  Langer clearly views herself as a mindful learner too.  This creates a bit of a puzzle.  How did we become that way if the educational system as a whole didn't recognize mindful learning as a goal?  Was it a product of school?  or something else?  or a combination?  Another point is about the blurb for the book on the site, which describes the book as radical in its implications.  I challenge that.  It seems to me that mindful learning is simply the natural way to learn (or I've grown so accustomed to it that I can't imagine another way except for learning very concrete things, like what one needs to know to pass a written driver's test at the DMV).  What does seem to me radical is the ethos about learning that underlies NCLB thinking, and putting the emphasis on measurement via testing above all else.  A third point is for the need of every learner to hear reasoned argument and that in many respects we've moved backwards as a society in that debate and disagreement without being disagreeable is now so rare to be found.  It's absence produces true believers, not mindful learners.  We tend to think about failures of the schools in isolation rather than failures of society as a whole as the prime causal factor.  In particular, the failure of school has focused on low income students living in the inner city.  There has been neglect in discussing how school fails even high income students living in the plush suburbs.  Yet the over programmed, school as credential approach fails these students all too often.  They become slaves of the system rather than masters of their own learning.

Let me turn to Langer's chapter on memory and forgetting.  The chapter for me was the closest one to where Langer and I completely agree on the issues.  She makes an important point that rather than immediately recalling everything we once knew, it is actually a good thing that we forget and when in the relevant situation have to rediscover ideas we learned previously.  Though she makes no mention of Donald Schon in her book, mindful learning looks very much like reflective practice, and the rediscovery of ideas coincides with Schon's notions of learning in action and knowing in action.  I believe that Langer would very much appreciate Schon for his emphasis on knowing as highly contextualized and that our ideas must unfold to match the situation.  One example that Langer provides is that she lectures with few if any notes so that each presentation becomes a thinking aloud rediscovery of the ideas, done in a way that fits the needs of the audience.  She does not mention this, but it seems apparent that questions from the audience that occur during the presentation help to make the presentation unique, even when she has lectured on the topic quite a bit previously.  The needs of the audience become apparent through the questioning and then she can better situate her talk to them.

I too used to lecture without notes, though I was motivated to do this for a different reason.  I found that with notes I would go too fast.  The need to rediscover the ideas would slow me down.  I recall doing this mainly in the first semester graduate course in microeconomics, where there were a lot of mathematical derivations of the results.  I believed I developed a reputation for being very thorough with the analysis of the models, including answering the "why are we doing this?" question.  In this I may have benefited from my own experience.  As an undergrad with little economics training, I took the advanced graduate math econ course, at the encouragement of the the instructor from the one undergrad econ course I had taken.  I could do most of the math, for example the Frobenius-Perron theorem, but I had no sense at all why that yielded interesting economic conclusions.  So in my lectures I developed a habit of spending a significant about of time on the usefulness of the results,  along with their derivation.

In this chapter Langer also takes on our attitudes about the elderly.  We have a tendency to put the elderly in a box and view them as diminished people, part of which is the decline in their memory.  She provides evidence to argue that our society's low expectations for the elderly reduces the performance older people are capable of.  When society has more respect for the elderly, they perform better.  She also argues (via a touching story from the Brothers Grimm) that irrespective of their diminished capacity the elderly deserve to be treated with decency, as human beings.  I took this part of the book as a reminder that we have a tendency to people in a box, whether due to aging or for other reasons.  Doing so is pernicious.  We need to guard against this tendency.

That said, on a couple of particulars regarding aging,  I have some small issues with Langer, based on my own experience.  One is on our ability to recall people.  I used to have very quick recall.  Now I find, fairly regularly, that I'm able to come up with the face pretty quickly.  But coming up with the name is harder and takes more time.  In the interim where I know the face but not the name there is a feeling of mild desperation.  I hate having half a thought only.  I'm really not sure what I do during that interim period to come up with the name.  But I do know the mildness comes from the realization that the world won't end even if I fail in the endeavor.  The desperation part, I believe, results from the sitzfleisch I discussed in the previous post.  There is disappointment in oneself when you don't know something you feel you should know.  The disappointment morphs into desperation in this case.  The other issue is in regard to getting a good night's sleep.  I believe younger people normally get decent rest when they do go to bed, although they may have a tendency to burn the candle on both ends.  My sleep now is more interrupted.  Further,  I have good nights and bad nights. After a really bad night, I've noticed my ability to spell is substantially reduced.  Langer doesn't talk about temporary memory loss due to an immediate incapacity, one that is likely to go away in the near future.  If it is right that there is a temporary relationship between quality of sleep and memory, and if people typically do have worse sleep as they get older, one gets a more nuanced explanation of the relationship between memory and aging. 

Langer next takes on the difference between mindful learning and intelligence.  She is very much into the generation of novel hypotheses, highly dependent on the context, and views that as the object of mindful learning.  In contrast, intelligence seems to be about problem solving, with the problem already formed and awaiting solution.   Though she doesn't dwell on this issue, it is also the case that mindful learning, since it is a process, is something each of us can partake in.  All that is needed is to try, perhaps by first receiving some direction on where to place our efforts.  In contrast, intelligence seems to be innate, predetermined by our genetic makeup or by our very early experiences.  In some sense, a focus on intelligence invariably emphasizes differences across people while a focus on mindful learning emphasizes our common attributes as human beings.

I'm confused on these issues as it relates to my own circumstance, with the question of how I came to be a mindful learner paramount.  For this reason, I have a fantasy of reliving my elementary school years, but looking at that time from the perspective of my teachers.  What did they see, in their class as whole, and then again in me in particular?  Much instruction then was more individualized and student driven than it is now.   For example, either in fifth or sixth grade, I can't recall which, I was involved in a programmed learning experiment with one or two other students, while the rest of the class did something else.  We had a book on English grammar that had white boxes of new information and gray boxes that gave the answer to the previously posed question.  There was one white box and one gray box on a line and perhaps four or five lines on a page.  As you read you covered the gray box on the next line, so as not to peak at the answer before generating it yourself.   Whatever was the ultimate consequence of this experience (my knowledge of when to use "that" versus when to use "which" is muddy, for example) it clearly gave an early try with learning in school on my own.  It eventually became a habit, though I'm unsure whether this particular episode was the cause.

Why was I selected for this programmed learning experience?  I'll never know.  I believe the school administered "Iowas," an intelligence exam of some sort.  Was it used to sort students into different "treatments" at school?  I don't know.  I do recall that with respect to SRA reading, I did make progress but was more in the middle of the pack.  I believe that SRA put some emphasis on reading speed, and I seem to recall that then I wasn't particularly quick.  Later, I learned to make insight in certain domains quite rapidly,  particularly in math, but mindful learning is not about speed of processing thoughts.  Perhaps there is some (small) correlation between being able to read quickly for comprehension, on the one hand, and persisting in reading an interesting and diverse set of materials at one's leisure.   I do have the feeling that now school all too often inadvertently kills the joy of reading, with the frequent testing and the teach to the test mentality.   Developing the reading habit is more important than anything else we can do to educate young learners.  Yet it seems so many kids don't read outside of school.  Is that due to low intelligence or failure of the educational system?  I don't know.

Langer concludes with a chapter on the myth of right answers.  I would have preferred a different title to that chapter - Finding something while looking for something else.  Much discovery is inadvertent.  That should be cherished.  Doing so requires us to be open to possibility.  So the chapter is really an admonishment not to be closed minded.  A fixation on right answers reduces the set of what is possible.   On this much of the argument, I agree with her.  But as a consequence of arguing her point, she doesn't discuss closed domains (like arithmetic) where there are right answers.  (I believe her response would be that closed domains themselves only make sense in context.   I agree with that, but then there are right answers.)   So she doesn't have a theory of education that allows for learning right answers in some domains while still being open to possibility.

The other thing the chapter misses is the human instinct to rationalize what are essentially random phenomena, such as in talking about the "hot hand."  This instinct, and that most of us are not good with probabilistic explanations, provides a counterbalance to an approach that would otherwise suggest all learning should be self-directed.  Langer's book does not discuss that mindful learners can nonetheless make serious mistakes, not so much in forming hypotheses, but rather in prematurely concluding they are true.  Langer depicts the mindful learner as someone who believes all knowledge is contingent, with a willingness to drop one's previously held point of view when the evidence suggests the prior view is untenable.  If only that were true.  I believe it takes longer than that for our views to change, as I've articulated in my piece, A Mature View of Uncertainty.    We remain stuck in our prior beliefs until the world around us appears to be crumbling and, maybe, even after that.  We don't always challenge our own held beliefs, because there is fear of what might happen in doing so.

This leads me to my closing point about Langer's book.  A natural sequel would focus on the emotions, and the relationship between them and mindful learning.  Langer does talk about feeling shame as a block to learning.  But she does not explore the full range of emotions and the relationship of them to taking a mindful approach.  I'd like to see a substantive piece on that.

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